|"Why so sad, beef? Because carp meat is back!"|
certain foods that Hungary does very well. Bacon, for instance, or anything
that comes off a pig, for that matter. Sour cabbage is a major food group. They
do amazing things with poppy seeds - Hungary is a paradise for anybody who desperately
wants to fail a urine test. But there is one area that is, arguably, not the Magyar culinary strong point. Fish.
Hungarians are not big fish eaters. Hungary has never had a sea coast (OK... it controlled a bit of one once but that didn't make them fish eaters - it made the Istrians fish eaters.) Maybe Hungarians were big fish fans back in the old Uralic days
when they spoke something close to Mansi and called three fish “holom hol” but then they
discovered pig protein and became Invincible Masters of Pork and once they got their hands on paprika they have
never looked back.
Hungarians are big on fish enjoyment, true, but the main source
of fish here is carp, usually eaten at home on Christmas Eve. Nothing wrong with
that… if you eat carp. In fact, most Hungarians find the flavor of salt water
fish strange and oddly dry and prefer the fresh water standards that they can get
from the Danube and the lakes of Pannonia.
|Those lemon slices should help dissolve the bones.|
But the downside is that most people don’t cook
fish more than once a year, and that recipe consists of boiling a carp into
oblivion in enough paprika to mask the fact that the sludge in your soup bowl
is, in fact, a boiled carp. Now, I would not normally use this space to … ahem…
carp about bad food, but we went to an event billed as the “Hungarian Fish
Festival” in February at the Budapest city park. We went hungry, eager to see if the trout farms and EU supported aquaculture industry would be out there to tempt us with their best, freshest product. Not a chance. It was a nightmare of bad
food, poorly prepared, showcasing the worst of a cuisine gasping for
respectability in an area it has no experience with. Sure, you can argue "try it, you might like it" but some foods have traditions built into them, and you don't stray. New England clam chowder anybody? With "mussels and crab and smoked salmon"?
|Boston clam chowder with mussels, crab and "extra salmon"?|
Hungary has been going through
a “foodie” craze of late, with TV shows aping all the latest western celebrity
chef shows and a booming growth in “street food” yards, because, you know... street food. Ersatz burger, taco, and pho joints opening up offering unrecognizable gleet that
would never inspire nostalgia in a Jersey burger craver, a Mexican on a pulque
binge, or a Viet hungry for soup. Fine. If it will feed the tourists and drunks
it can survive.
But the Fish festival was a promotional effort for a fish
cuisine that just… isn’t. One trend in the Hungarian foodie circuit these days
is to produce “traditional” foods that were often invented last week. There are the "Hungarian pizza" stands. There is the "lepeny" stands offering "Hungarian burritos. These are just sad. Hungary has a lot of old style foods that are or were sold at fairs and markets for on the go eating. Langos. Sausage. Fried fish. We know
this because… ahem… some of us are not tourists and perhaps we actually like
traditional Hungarian dishes.
|Fish kolbasz! The flavor treat of the future! |
|Balaton fish and sour cabbage... |
“Fish cabbage” is one such case: a
paprika-laced sour cabbage dish – sort of a Frankenstein version of the original recipe made with pork as “Székely
kaposzta” – but using carp in place of meat. I have lots of Hungarian cookbooks, including a cookbook of recipes from
one of Hungary’s poorest regions, the Nyirség in the northeast, which includes
recipes for survival foods like stewed minnows and crow stew. Not a single
mention of “fish cabbage” in it. And it says "Balaton fish cabbage"... as if anybody living near lake Balaton would choose to make this into a winter cabbage dish instead of the usual dishes prepared in the main Transdanubian source of fresh fish. There is no heritage like fake heritage! Herman Ottó was a Hungarian naturalist –
and one of my favorite writers in the Hungarian language – who wrote reams
about fish and fishing in Hungarian folk culture in the last century… and he never mentions any fish dish using cabbage. But wait.. it gets worse… much worse.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the carp sausage.
|Carp carp carp carp... and carp. |
This is the culinary
equivalent of genocide, an act so unacceptable as to be an outrage
against the idea of eating as a means of life. Basically, it is a carp – a soft
fleshed, fatty fish with armor scales and a habit of eating the eggs of any other fish it finds and noted for its multiple rows of small floating Y-shaped bones that
defy filleting – ground into a paste and mixed with paprika and stuffed into a
natural sausage casing. So, yes, it looks like a sausage. But it is carp. Vendors were selling these everywhere. No, I did not try one. And
I truly doubt that any of the vendors dared to either. What is interesting is
that until this year, I had never seen one of these sausage chimeras for sale
anywhere. And my guess is that after this year I will never see one again. Carp in a tube. Think about that. This
is one we saw abandoned at a picnic table after its purchaser suffered through
one single agonizing bite.
This is, perhaps, the saddest food picture I have
ever taken. We were visiting on a Sunday afternoon, which meant that a lot of
the fish was being sold at reduced prices… but that is to say it wasn't exactly
the freshest of fish. I really wanted to try something, I actually skipped
lunch to save my appetite for the festival… but I simply could not. I watched
one “chef” prepare the catfish stew – which is a favorite of both my Mother and
I - big chunks of giant wels catfish in a paprikás sauce served over cheesy
noodles. If I see this in a restaurant I almost always order it. However... today it was an unattractive primordial mess.
The Chef-like Guy working the Festival franchise booth dumped a tray of pre-cooked catfish chunks in a rustic looking pan,
opened up a five gallon jug of orange-ish sauce and dumped that on top, stirred
it around to take the chill out of it, and presto: instant culinary heritage! No, I
simply could not make myself order a plate. This was food served on an industrial scale, with no love at all - food to milk the tourist forint. This is not food I would want to eat. The fried fish? Nope. Most of the fish looked so dull – eyed and
dried out it could have been five or six days old. I'm a sport fisherman. I cook a lot of fish. I was raised next to the Atlantic ocean, and Fumie is from Tokyo: we know what fresh fish looks like.
|Harcsapaprikás of my nightmarish dreams.|
It doesn't look like this. This was one food
festival where I went home hungry. If you want to try Hungarian fish dishes,
there are great restaurants that specialize in fish: try the Aranyhal in Zuglo or the Horgasztanya in Buda. If you are ever in the Hungarian countryside, say in Szeged or Paks do not miss a
bowl of the fish soup – even declared enemies of the carp such as myself
surrender to the paprika camouflage. But in Hungary if fish and tourists show
up in the same space… wait until you can order a veal schnitzel. If it is a beef goulash or pork stew on offer, by all means - the ones at festivals are great. Those are something that any Hungarian with the least experience in the kitchen can shine at. But stay away from the fish. For the love of God, stay away from the fish.
|Bullhead, horned pout... an invasive American species in Europe. Eat 'em!|
|And thus I again successfully manage to post something that does not reflect on the horrific levels of corruption, incompetence, and cynicism that permeated Hungarian politics this week!|